Are you sick and tired of reading another article that lists the same suggestions such as getting more sleep, eating better, exercise, and meditate? You’ve heard the same message many times and might even find yourself rolling your eyes. These recommendations, while beneficial, continue to fall on deaf ears.
Yet, there’s still a part of you that’s seeking out advice; searching for that “ah-ha” life-changing moment. That part of you is screaming for change.
What keeps a doctor from putting their health and wellbeing first? What keeps them from taking their own advice?
As a naturopathic doctor, I’m always looking for the cause. I started to research the roadblocks clinicians face internally and externally.
Based on mine and other's research, I have compiled a list of common reasons doctors don't seek help or make their health a priority. See if any of these resonate with you.
When you can identify the main roadblock keeping you from making positive changes, you can then start to work through the problem. The clearer the problem, the clearer solutions will become. Whatever is getting in your way from making your well-being top priority, it’s time to start addressing it.
The Competitive Overachiever
Are you the clinician that stacks the schedule with as many patients as you can fit in, then goes home to work on your book, getting very little sleep, and pushing through the fatigue the following day? Perhaps you are looking at your colleagues and seeing how many patients they can pack into a day; and you follow suit. If you have the tendency to compare yourself to what others are doing and trying to exceed their achievements, you may be a competitive overachiever.
If you work out, you might see signs of the competitive overachiever when you’ve been injured but push through the pain anyway. There’s that voice in your head that’s nagging you to rest and recover or to go see a specialist, but you press on and ignore the voice until the pain is too much. You might do whatever it takes to get a new "personal record" in your tracking device, despite overtraining or pushing through an injury.
If you fall into this category, you might have been raised by a competitive family or a family that valued being the top of your class, first place in the race, and becoming a lawyer or doctor.
Having that drive is awesome but if you don’t reign it in, what could it be costing you? Like an overuse injury in working out, if you don’t pay attention to the signs of burnout, your physiology will catch up and bring your health down with it.
Is paying attention to your needs and acknowledging fatigue a sign of weakness to you? I certainly grew up in a tough household where we rewarded toughness and patronized any sign of "weakness". I was told so many times to stop crying or my dad would “give me something to cry about” when I was scared to go down the steep ski slope for the first time or when I stubbed my toe on some furniture. Being raised like that made us tough, but is there a line?
Those who allow pride to get in the way, will be the last one to ask for help.
If you were assessing a clinician for burnout, what signs or symptoms would that person have to present that would make you say they need a time out or that it's time to evaluate their daily lifestyle?
Some people feel guilty for taking time for themselves or practicing self-care. This is when they have been submerged in the “giving” culture or there’s a strong sense of duty, putting other's first. Giving and taking care of others is admirable, honorable, and celebrated and doctors chose taking care of others as a profession.
The church, non-profit organizations, and service clubs all teach that we must give back as well. This is all good unless you are giving from an empty cup. You may be empty of time, empty financially, or empty emotionally. I became President of my rotary club at a time when my cup was empty. 4 months in, I met my threshold which showed up as actual pain in my adrenals, insomnia, and anxiety. A volunteer position which values service above self was impacting my health and my business in a negative way. So, 4 months into a year-long commitment, I resigned.
I experienced first-hand what giving from an empty cup can do to your livelihood, the relationships around you, and your health.
You and your health are more important than your patients. What good is a burnt-out doctor to their patients? Why else would flight attendants say to put on your mask first?
To admit that you are burnt out, fatigued, or needing a break could be a detriment to your practice because people may stop coming to you or your colleagues may stop referring more patients to you out of care and concern. In some professions, would your license be temporarily revoked, or would you have to take it up with your licensing board?
Doctors are put on an unrealistic pedestal and face unrealistic demands. They can’t get sick, get tired, or make mistakes. The pressures doctors face is high.
When a clinician needs to reach out for help, who can they turn to?
Most of the time, they suffer quietly, put on their happy mask, and get on with it.
When someone isn’t feeling like themselves, you can see it on their face or in their actions. The “I’m ok” mask may work for a time, but those shields doctors put up eventually crack and no matter how hard someone might try to hide their difficulties, people can usually sense something is off.
This is often out of people’s control, especially if you are a team member within a practice. My suggestion here is to find out where your power is. Are you able to communicate to management or your boss that your schedule is not serving you nor your patients?
Try a journaling exercise where you set aside limiting beliefs, think outside the box, and imagine what you could be doing instead of working like an undervalued machine?
What could you be doing outside of work to help you decompress, unplug, and recharge?
In situations like this, taking care of yourself becomes even more important because you have very little control over your daily schedule.
Self-medicate or self-treat:
Let’s face it. Doctors already know how to treat themselves. If they can’t get a medication or supplement on their own, they will seek their friends and colleagues who can.
Treating ourselves is a luxury to having so much knowledge about our bodies, but clinicians often abuse this privilege. Overmedicating or taking the most complex supplement regimen may help but it can also cover up the real problem.
Addressing the real problem can take hard work but it can pay off in a big way.
Because you made it this far in your profession, I know you are able to face whatever comes your way but know that even Olympians rest and recover.
Do you put your health and your needs on the backburner?
Do any of the categories above resonate with you? If so, pick one category and simply think about how it’s serving you but also how it’s stopping you from getting unstuck and moving out of burn out.
I hope this article was helpful in better understanding some obstacle we face as doctors and can give